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Part fun creature feature and part tense and character-driven suspense thriller, the highly original Island Zero packs quite a punch on a small budget.

In less capable hands, a movie about a new species of invisible, carnivorous sea creatures that mutilate and devour the local inhabitants of a remote island would be nothing more than fodder for a ridiculous SyFy creature feature.

However, Josh Gerritsen, directing from a script penned by his mother Tess Gerritsen (author of the Rizzoli & Isles novels) delivers an effectively creepy and atmospheric thriller, buoyed by exceptional performances and some truly stunning cinematography.

Island Zero centers around an isolated island off the coast of Maine. Times were already tough for the locals, as the once richly abundant fishing waters have recently dried up, but things dramatically worsen when the ferry the island relies on for critical food and supplies — and the only real connection to the mainland — stops showing up. Suddenly, the residents of the small town find themselves stranded, with no communication and dwindling food supplies.

Most of the island inhabitants board a couple of small fishing boats headed for the mainland. Those left behind include a marine biologist named Sam (Adam Wade McLaughlin), his girlfriend and daughter, an ex-military doctor (Laila Robins), an unlikable writer and out-of-towner who claims to be using the island as inspiration for his next novel (Matthew Wilkas), an elderly couple, a young waitress and a restaurant worker.

After a bloody discovery and a couple of shocking developments I won’t spoil here, we learn that, for several years, Sam has been studying the cause of fish — and fishermen — disappearing in several other coastal areas. He, like his wife who mysteriously died while on a boat researching the phenomenon, believes there may be a new species of marine predator responsible.

We also discover, in a rather gruesome way, that these bloodthirsty creatures are not confined to water. As a result, no one and nowhere is safe from being mercilessly hunted and slaughtered by an unknown — an unseen — assailant.

While essentially a creature feature, the real draws of this film are the strong performances and the compelling, Lovecraftian storyline.

In fact, the film works best as a survival drama, with a focus on character development and atmosphere. Taking inspiration from horror masters like Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock, the strength of the film is on its use of escalating suspense and psychological terror.

Many may be disappointed by how little actual creature action we really get. In a move very reminiscent of Predator, we discover the sea monsters are able to manipulate light with their skin, making them impossible to see with the naked eyes.

Most of what we see are the after effects of the creature attacks, as well as a very cool scene when an invisible force rips the lower half of a woman’s body from her torso. The glimpses we get of the creatures are primarily through the view of a thermographic camera, which the marine biologist’s daughter conveniently owns.

For me, I thought this was an extremely clever way to maintain the creepiness and mystery of the sea creatures while avoiding the limitations of a small budget. I greatly prefer this to disappointing CGI, which we do get a bit of, but thankfully only in a small dose at the very end of the film.

From a chilling opening scene that effectively sets the tone for the film, to a surprisingly dark and satisfying ending, Island Zero kept me thoroughly invested throughout.

A plot twist near the end takes a bit of a turn into B movie science fiction territory, but convincing performances from the stellar cast and some great suspense keep the film from dipping too far into the realm of pure cheese.

Shot on location, the film looks incredible and takes great advantage of its beautiful but extremely isolated setting. Sincere performances and smart writing lend depth to the characters, elevating ‘Island Zero’ a good deal above similar deadly creature films. It’s a slow build with a great payoff that emphasizes mounting dread over in-your-face effects and tons of gory kills.

There’s also some surprisingly deep and thought provoking themes regarding environmental recklessness and mistrust of the government resting just below the surface of this Hitcockian thriller that I found tremendously satisfying. I highly recommend you check this one out.

Island Zero is available on VOD nationwide through Freestyle Digital Media as of May 15th.

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